Our complicity in surveillance

Welcome to my world is right: we take part in the production of our surveillance. His evidence?


He says:

But also I don’t buy the idea that some sort of surveillance society (or much of anything else) is being imposed upon us. We are, at the very least, complicit and many of us are actively encouraging the state and others to watch us more closely, which is where Facebook is going to come in, after I detour via Foucault.

In Foucault’s best books – his archaeologies of the medical profession, madness, prisons – he sets out to look at how knowledge and power become one thing.

In these histories he traces the way expertise held by particular groups comes to be valued and to shape not just institutions but the expectations of people of how the world should be and how knowledge comes to define the categories through which our socialised minds experience the world.

In his history of the medicalisation of society he looks at how phenomena that might once have been called, for example, evil spirits and been the subject of religious authority have been brought within the purview of medicine, doctors, hospitals, the medical establishment, health inspectors, local authorities, government departments etc. etc.

And these experts arose to meet a need, they didn’t just decide to become powerful experts. The author of this post says the same is true of surveillance:

But Facebook takes the individual’s complicity in the surveillance society to a new and altogether more intense level. This isn’t just people handing over the potential for surveillance to agencies outside their control in the pursuit of social/political/personal advancement. This is people acting as agents of surveillance on themselves – Facebookers put their whole lives online on their walls for everyone to see and some of them do it in compulsive, intimate detail.

David Brin’s book on the surveillance society, The Transparent Society, argued that in the new technological era we were going to have to get used to living in a world where privacy was impossible. Brin took some (grim) satisfaction from the fact that while our own lives may be laid bare, so would the lives of anyone who watched us – and that provided safeguards as well as threats.

I think this is a very Foucauldian way to look at it, but if you remember the idea of “government of the self and others” this blog goes too far away from the “and others” part in saying that:

But also I don’t buy the idea that some sort of surveillance society (or much of anything else) is being imposed upon us.

If we invite surveillance, or are willing to see it as a tradeoff for security, then we are complicit in that practice. But the idea that we in fact have (not want, or should have) totally free rein is not found in any modern theory of government, afaik.

We may be complicit and grant “permission in various ways” but how is it then used and the question is how can we take the permission back:

Blair, who is due to resign June 27 after a decade in office, wrote in an article in The Sunday Times that his government planned to publish new anti-terrorism proposals “within the next few weeks”.

An interior ministry spokeswoman confirmed the government was looking at including a “stop and question” power in the new legislation. “We are considering a range of powers for the bill and ‘stop and question’ is one of them,” she said.

The “stop and question” power would enable police to interrogate people about who they are, where they have been and where they were going, The Sunday Times said. Police would not need to suspect a crime had taken place.

If suspects failed to stop or refused to answer questions, they could be charged with a crime and fined, The Sunday Times said. Police already have the power to stop and search people but have no right to ask them their identity and movements.


4 Responses

  1. The latter part presents an interesting parallel with early modern Europe – during the move from country-side to city, industrialization, and the invention of the broad range of “police” powers. I’m thinking of what, for instance, Daniel Roche describes in France in the Enlightenment.

  2. Thanks for the link back, interesting blog, I shall be RSSing…

    Those discontent with he intrusion of surveillance into their lives do “take the permission back” in lots of ways – they encrypt their email, they stay off the Internet, they refuse storecards, they campaign against cameras, there are even small groups whose goal it is to damage and destroy cameras.

    But, of course, once the networks of power have been interwoven into the institutions/expectations of society then those opposed to surveillance will have just as much difficulty unseating it as, say those who oppose the medicalisation of aspects of our life or any other aspect of the ways in which we concede to forms of governmentality.

    I’m not saying the balance of power is equal – it clearly isn’t. It’s one of those unfair criticism of Foucault by realists – that by saying that each of us has some ability to manipulate the knowledge/power matrix that, therefore, Foucault somehow ignores the fact of the unequal balance of advantage and institutionalisation of controsl in the real world. Foucault’s idea of resistance being the natural outcome of every exercise of power does not, of course, imply either that those acts of resistance will be successful or that they will balance out the initial act in some Newtonian fashion.

    Perhaps what I should have said was:

    “But also I don’t buy the idea that some sort of surveillance society (or much of anything else) is being imposed upon us… without the consent and even the encouragement of many of us and the resistance of those who object.”

    Because it is, of course, being imposed against the will of some of us – and even those who consent to surveillance in some areas may reject the unforeseen consequences of their support in other areas.

    What I was trying, inadequately, to say, is that its imposition is not upon a passive community who are simply having this done to them. In the same way that medical professionals arose to meet a need, so surveillance professionals are responding to a need – not just from politicians but from the public.

    An interesting example was in the current case of that young child abducted in Portugal. The reporting of the failure of Portugese cctv cameras to be of an adequate quality to identify potential suspects took on, in some papers, the quality of outrage that the Portugese should be so backward.

    And, as I say, technologies like Facebook (and MySpace and Twitter and others) demonstrate that in an era when we expect to have every minute detail of celebrities lives set out for us to inspect, perhaps there’s an element in our society who don’t regard surveillance as a problem but rather as a validation, a sign of their worth?

  3. Yes, the Portugal case is an interesting one (though I haven’t been following it closely, as a Brit I was aware of it popping up and have been told about it). Why that child, why now and why there? Probably because in Britain they have absorbed a certain expectation of surveillance. When I was visiting there last January I couldn’t believe how surveillant it had become since my last trip 2 years previously.
    It’s pertinent that surveys continually indicate that people are willing to “exchange” surveillance for security, and in this way they are complicit, as you point out.
    That is why I’ve come to believe that the privacy wars are over–and privacy lost (must read that book you cite). Responding with “rights” (eg a right to privacy or geo-privacy) is a non-starter because rights can be trumped. (Yet perhaps rights are not a total loss in times outside our present one.) Also rights cannot be used as mobilization while this false choice predominates (“just say no to warrantless wiretaps of perhaps you and your friends” is less convincing than “terrists bad!).
    Responding with the piecemeal analysis of certain surveillance (“it depends how it’s used, inherently you know it can be good or bad”), diverts attention away from the need for modern societies, if they are based on risk as ours are, to deploy mass surveillance.

  4. I don’t know much about Foucault or some of the issues raised but I have contemplated security and surveillance quite a bit. I live in the NE and the climate here is increasingly toward increased surveillance. A few examples are the pressure to install CCTV in bars in NYC to be monitored by police, Tom Knox (former mayoral contender for Democratic nomination in PHL) arguing for CCTV to reduce gun violence (rather than attempt to control our gun problem–165 homicides this year as of Memorial Day weekend, 3 dead on Friday alone…), PHL Mayoral Demo candidate (and, thus, future Mayor) promoting a “stop and frisk” policy, CCTV throughout Europe and the UK, and these new biometric fast-track lines in a few airports. In reading the post and the comments, I had two thoughts, for what they are worth.

    First, are “we” complicit in the security/privacy trade off? I am not so sure. Surveillance, by and large, has been developed as policy, not law. Thus, how do we know if the public is, by a majority, complicit (beyond public opinion polls). Quite often when policies are tested by the passage of a law, people become wary. Few people, especially today and here, like to commit to things as permanently as laws make us do.

    Second, how does one become complicit with surveillance? Is there not a tremendous power in the suggestion? Many people are susceptible and gullible because they are too busy with their lives to think deeply about topics beyond their own immediate concerns and their own immediate future. There are few informed citizens today. Couple the modern American with a government that serves to stir hatred and fear in the average citizen and the result is a loss of our much valued and globally unique sense of freedom. Who is under attack here?

    Terrorism is not new and surveillance may not prevent it. Dare I liken the modern conflict between surveillance/increased security and terrorism to the Cold War? A constant escalation of harmful practices indefinitely deadlocked. To end the battle, both sides must either back down or be obliterated. Would it not have been far simpler to contemplate and address the motivation for these extreme and atrocious acts of terrorism, to examine why there is so much hatred of America and its policies in certain places in the world?

    We are quickly losing America.

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